New building for University College of the North in Thompson opens

The University College of the North (UCN) is located in a region of Manitoba abundant in natural resources, beautiful lakes, rivers, forests and minerals; serving communities steeped in Aboriginal cultures and traditions. Established in 2004, UCN is a unique postsecondary institution offering trades, adult education, certificate, diploma- and university degree-granting programs.

Designed by Architecture49, the new campus building has a floor area of 87,780 square feet, and was designed and built in conjunction with renovations to the existing Thompson Regional Community Centre on site to create a “town centre.” The two buildings are connected, sharing amenities such as food services, gymnasium, daycare and library. The campus building is a four-storey structure with visual and spiritual connection to the Burntwood River on the north side of the site.

The south façade is the public face of the new campus. Conceptually, it is transparent, reflective of the educational and community programs contained within. The curvature of the footprint creates a welcoming gathering place with southern exposure, protected from the north winter winds.

The design intent was to simplify the materiality of the building, using materials that relate to the region, and aboriginal cultural values. With this in mind, the building utilized local granite, wood, high-performance curtain-wall systems and metal cladding. Green roofs, sloping up from grade level, will provide a natural outdoor environment for students and staff, and give the appearance the building grows out of the land. A dramatic and welcoming two-storey main entrance strengthens the connection to the community centre, and act as the central meeting area.

Further, the south facade of the building has a striking array of horizontal solar slats enclosing levels three and four that will form the architectural “signature facade.” The slats were inspired by the vernacular aboriginal slat building techniques and the slat craftsmanship of the canoes used by native peoples for transportation on the Burntwood River.

Architecture has a social responsibility. The design intent was to express the community’s values through architecture. Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing demographic in Canada. Lack of access to good education is a major problem facing First Nations. The UCN campus is an inviting destination that inspires and connects the community, and makes the First Nation students feel welcome.

The design will achieve many other goals that have not traditionally been part of a university’s mandate, such as creating a sense of place and rejuvenating a natural site impacted by mine waste backfill. There is a learning commons, a place where students can do homework and experiment with new computer software in a supportive environment. The new building is both a place for traditional and advanced learning, but also an attempt to reach out to those who have not previously felt welcome in a university college environment. The desire is to change that paradigm by opening the university college to everyone who wants to learn, or just wants to sit in the space and enjoy the feeling of a community village.

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